China's Xi Says Asia Security Ties Lag Economic Cooperation

  • South China Sea belonged to China since ancient times, Xi says
  • Xi Says China will never disrupt navigation in waters

Growing economic cooperation in Asia is not being matched by security collaboration, Chinese President Xi Jinping said, calling on nations to “never let animosity” divide us even as tensions run high in the disputed South China Sea.

While repeating China’s claim to a large swath of the South China Sea -- saying the area belonged to the country since ancient times -- Xi used a speech in Singapore on Saturday during a state visit to downplay the territorial disputes that have caused friction with countries including the Philippines and Vietnam.

China is one of the biggest trading partners for Southeast Asian nations and has pledged infrastructure funding for countries such as Indonesia as it seeks to build a maritime Silk Road trading route to Europe. At the same time it has caused unease by expanding its military presence in the region, particularly via its navy. Apart from the South China Sea, China is also in dispute with Japan over islands in the neighboring East China Sea.

“Asian countries are more interconnected than ever before, thanks to the accelerated process of regional integration,” Xi said. “But they may take different approaches to regional cooperation, and security cooperation in the region is out of step with economic cooperation. All these are challenges that we should meet.”

China claims more than 80 percent of the South China Sea based on a nine-dash line drawn on a 1947 map for which it gives no precise coordinates, an assertion that has led to complaints from other claimant states. Under Xi, China has stepped up efforts to assert control of the waters, including building islands that offer possible bases for its ships and planes.

‘Maintain Peace’

“The starting point and ultimate purpose of China’s policy towards the South China Sea is to maintain peace and stability there,” Xi said. “The situation in the South China Sea is generally peaceful. There has never been any problem with the freedom of navigation and overflight. Nor will there ever be any in the future.”

Still, defense ministers from the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations joined by officials from the U.S., China and Japan failed to agree on a joint communique when they met in Kuala Lumpur last week. The statement was scuttled by China’s opposition to language on the territorial disputes in the waters that have come to dominate Asean meetings, The Wall Street Journal reported.

Xi’s visit to Singapore followed a two-day trip to Vietnam -- the first by a Chinese president in a decade -- that emphasized the economic bond between the communist neighbors. Xi faced a public wary of China’s influence and its actions in the South China Sea. Only 19 percent of Vietnamese hold favorable views on China, a Pew Research Center poll shows.

When they met in Hanoi, Communist Party General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong asked Xi “not to pursue militarization of the East Sea," Vietnam’s name for the South China Sea. Xi committed to working with Vietnam on curbing tensions over the waters.

The U.S. became further enmeshed in the South China Sea spats last month when its navy sailed the USS Lassen into waters claimed by China, cementing the expectation it would act as a policeman and protector in the area. The patrol prompted an angry response by Beijing and came just weeks after Xi met with President Barack Obama in Washington, where he said China “does not intend to pursue militarization” of the area.

International Waters

Defense Secretary Ashton Carter visited the USS Theodore Roosevelt last week as it patrolled the South China Sea.

In a weekend speech at the Reagan National Defense Forum in California, Carter repeated that the U.S. would “fly, sail, and operate wherever international law allows” and said China could yet become one of the most damaging challenges to international order. “China is a rising power, and growing more ambitious in its objectives and capabilities,” he said.

‘Fundamental Stake’

“We all have a fundamental stake in the security of maritime Asia, including dynamics within the South China Sea,” Carter said. “That is why the United States is concerned with land reclamation there. And China has reclaimed more land than any other country in the entire history of the region.”

In Asia, the U.S. is putting its best and newest assets and making heavy investments in subsurface warfare, electronic warfare, space, cyber, and missile defense, Carter said. He added he plans next year to make his first visit to China since becoming the top U.S. defense official in February.

Xi said China welcomed non-Asian nations contributing to peace and development in the region.

 "The most important task facing all Asian governments is to ensure sustained development,” he said. “Non-Asian countries should understand and respect this and play a constructive role.”

While Southeast Asian nations have generally welcomed the U.S. warship’s transit, some have expressed unease at the potential to be caught in the middle of China-U.S. tensions. Indonesia’s Defense Minister Ryamizard Ryacudu said last week the U.S. must abide by laws of the sea when carrying out patrols.

“The most important thing is that the presence of powers outside Asean, I hope, will not create a situation that will increase tensions, that will make the waters even more murky," Malaysian Defense Minister Hishammuddin Hussein told reporters on Tuesday.

Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said in May that smaller countries in the region don’t want to be squeezed by the two major powers.

"All Asian countries hope that U.S.-China relations will be positive," Lee said. "No country wants to choose sides between the U.S. and China.”

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